Wikipedia – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good

Paraphrased from Wikipedia itself, Wikipedia is described as an online encyclopedia anyone can edit.  Launched in 2001, it has became one of the most used sources of knowledge by internet searchers, typically showing up first and almost always on the first page of a google search for most words.  It is developed by volunteers, free to the public, and relies upon the donations of people to support the infrastructure and paid staff.  This open-source knowledge is similar to open-sourced  operating system Linux, open-sourced software GNU, which includes open-sourced encryption PGP.

walesListen to founder, Jimmy Wales, be interviewed by Krista Tippet during her On Being podcast in 2016, 11 years after his TEDtalks video.

In the early days of the internet, encyclopedias were sold as a product license by Microsoft and other vendors.  Now this information is free to all.  Wikipedia and other had a hand in creating the culture of free and available information for all.  We should be grateful to them.

  • The labor unions gave us the weekend.
  • Martin Luther gave us access to worship God without the Catholic Church.
  • Wikipedia gave us free and available information.

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The Bad

The process of correcting errors depends upon the human being assigned to manage the editing of that particular page and the Wikipedia process, which sometimes does not make rational sense.  Author Philip Roth writes in the New Yorker about his blocked attempt to improve the accuracy of an entry about a book he wrote, an entry in which he would be the highest authority.  The entry regards the inspiration for the book.

Tom Simonite writes in the 2013 MIT Technology Review about the declining number of Wikipedia editors, who are the backbone of the system for managing the content of the online encyclopedia.

Matt Ferner writes in the Huffington Post about a Wikipedia page vandalism, following a lawsuit verdict.  Anyone using this information, prior to the repair, would be utilizing inaccurate information.

Wikipedia has been accused of being left-leaning.  History is written by the victors, and this writing can be very biased, if not blatantly inaccurate.  Researchers Zhu and Greenstein have compared Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica and found significant disparities in bias and accuracy.

The Ugly

Wikipedia has been accused of being run by geeky white, left-leaning males whose bias permeates the entire site.  The founder has been accused of being heavy handed, at times. Read some of the critical comments on some of the behaviors of the founder, criticizing his incivility, lack of consistency, lack of transparency, and bias.  The October 2015 Atlantic article highlights instances when women editors have become targets of hostility from male editors.

The Real

Fact: Wikipedia has become a referenced source of information for many people.

According to William Jordan on yougov.uk, around two thirds of British people trust the authors of Wikipedia entries to tell the truth, many more than trust newspaper journalists.

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Jordan also states that readers trust Wikipedia less than Encyclopedia Britannica for accuracy.

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Takeaway

Leo Tolstoy destroyed my simplistic view of the world, as I read Anna Karenina.  In the first chapters, Karenin, the workaholic, emotionally suppressed, and devoted husband was symbolic of “good” and Anna, the privileged, cheating wife, was symbolic of “bad.”  By the end of the novel, my immature lens of distinction between good and bad was forever lost, fading away in a blur of uprooted moral anchors.  Plain to see, as Tolstoy led me down this path, was that there is good, such as the beauty and love of life in Anna, and bad, such as the suppressed, cold heart in Karenin, in most people.  The same is true of organizations. There are some people and some organizations that cause far more damage than they make positive contributions.  There are some that fall on the other side, contributing much more than they detract.  It is simple enough to say these words and very challenging to embody them.

The Catholic Church has probably fed, educated, and provided healthcare for more humans than any other private organization in the history of the world.  It also is responsible for the bloody crusades, the instigation of other wars, suppression, manipulation, antisemitism, as well as the sexual abuse of priests in our own cities recently.

Rather than paint Wikipedia as good or bad, useful or useless, I suggest we paint it as an ongoing experiment in human collaboration and learn from its failures and successes.

Companies and organizations adopting @Workplace by Facebook, Slack, or other collaborative tools could learn from one of the largest and oldest collaborative ventures.  If Jimmy Wales started a consulting company, wrote a book “What I learned about Collaboration from Wikipedia”, and offered his services, he would probably be in high demand.

 

6 comments

  1. Nice post. I’ve done ALOT of research on Wikipedia. It really is a fascinating place, behind the scenes.

    1. Thank you. I like how the leaders state their mission, attempt to live it out, make mistakes, and continue contributing. It seems like a great place to learn lessons in collaboration, since much has worked well and some has not.

  2. Nice post, as a student growing up during the burst of online technology and availability of information. Wikipedia has been influential in everyone assessment or paper. This summer, I was able to look into Wikipedia. Many of the larger pages – famous presidents, events or celebrities – are monitor very religiously. It is hard to make changes, especially if they aren’t true. Wikipedia also monitors how active your profile is. They will block you from making changes if you over-edit pages.

    1. Thanks, Drew. Let’s see what Wikipedia says about Trump after this week!

  3. alinacasari · ·

    Great post! I think your mention of the Catholic Church is a great idea to consider- Wikipedia can do both good and bad. Personally, I remember when Wikipedia first was gaining popularity that every one of my teachers would say it wasn’t a source. However, it seems like now that is no longer said because it is assumed that everyone will read the page. Although everyone is expected to read the page, Wikipedia still isn’t a quotable source because we all still have an understanding that it’s not completely factual or unbiased. For me, Wikipedia’s main purpose is to learn the gist of a topic – a basic summary and some common themes are all I expect. I also use it more for popular events or people, which are monitored more heavily.

    I think your takeaway is quite insightful. Your remarks about Anna Karenina are an interesting way to consider your feelings about the site. I see so many benefits from Wikipedia, but at the same time, I realize how flawed it can be. I am curious to see how our perceptions of Wikipedia will change in the future or if it will always be regarded in this way.

    1. Thank you for your well thought-out comment, Alina. Sounds like you use it, knowing it is not 100% accurate and unbiased. At least we go in with our eyes wide open, as opposed to our younger days, when, at least for me, I assumed the media and history books were accurate and unbiased.

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